Election Shows that First-Past-the-Post Delivers

Worth A Look, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

The federal election seemed to please a lot of people in the way that it punished the Liberals but didn’t give the Conservatives an unbridled opportunity for radical reform. But this satisfaction with the judgment of voters hasn’t stopped the boosters of proportional representation from charging that Monday’s election was a travesty.

“Once again, Canada’s antiquated first-past-the-post system wasted millions of votes, distorted results, severely punished large blocks of voters, exaggerated regional differences, created an unrepresentative Parliament and may possibly have even given us the wrong government,” Fair Vote Canada says.

The organization, which lobbies for electoral reform, says the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois got more seats than their share of the popular vote ought to have accorded them while the New Democrats and the Greens will be underrepresented in the Commons. Had the votes been cast under a PR system, it argues, the NDP, Liberals and Greens could have formed a coalition government.

The criticism raises a question. Were Canadians looking for a re-elected Liberal government propped up by the NDP and the Greens? Or were they giving the Liberals a time out so they could offer the Conservatives a chance to show their stuff within the context of a minority Parliament? There are many people — including a ton of Liberals — who argue that it was the latter and that the system delivered exactly what voters wanted.

Fair Vote Canada and other PR advocates see it differently, of course, preferring to talk of “wasted” votes and diversity. This is fair enough and a fine topic for debate on a dreary February day. It isn’t just academic, however, as some Canadians will soon be asked to pass judgment on how they choose their legislators.

It’s possible, for example, that Stephen Harper might try to secure NDP support with a parliamentary package that includes electoral reform. As well, a number of provinces are re-examining their electoral systems. Voters in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island have turned down reform initiatives, but reform is still being pushed in Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario.

An all-party committee in Ontario offered some guidance in a pre-Christmas report and Marie Bountrogianni, the minister responsible for bringing life to Premier Dalton McGuinty’s golly-gee wish for democratic renewal, will announce next month the appointment of a “citizens’ assembly” to examine voting procedures. The committee’s cautionary words about the makeup of the assembly and its terms of reference ought to be heeded by the minister if she doesn’t want to throw out a serviceable voting system in the pursuit of novelty.

That’s almost what happened in B.C., where 58 per cent of voters in a referendum last May chose to adopt a convoluted form of PR that few understood but which was touted as a way around the province’s polarized political culture. B.C. voters fell for the allure of the new, turning their backs on the shopworn first-past-the-post system. Thankfully, support for PR fell two points short of the approval threshold or else we would be hearing a lot more about Droop quotas and modified Meeks 123 algorithm.

The Ontario committee said that the citizens’ assembly should focus not just on numbers but on broad questions of governance as well and that it should be allowed to recommend the status quo if it wants.

PR may increase voter turnout because no votes would be “wasted,” but it’s not certain. The turnout in Ireland, which has the system B.C. spurned, is lower than Canada’s. Surely, part of the problem is voters (particularly the young) have been driven away by the incessant message from the business and media elite that government is the problem.

PR would certainly offer sustenance to marginal parties, but this would be a backward step in a country where big-tent political parties are one of the few bulwarks against balkanization. A profusion of parties based on ethnicity or interests (gay rights, for example) would make governing Canada and its provinces much more difficult.

Mr. McGuinty and other leaders need to take a deep breath and consider that perhaps the cynicism about politics has less to do with how politicians are elected than what they do once they are elected.